The mission of the Annenberg School’s Communication Neuroscience Lab has long been to determine what kinds of messages best motivate us to adopt healthier habits. As COVID-19 began its sweeping disruption of daily life in March 2020 and behaviors like mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing have become life or death for many, lab members are immediately felt called to action.
Doctoral student Mary E. Andrews is particularly concerned with issues of equity. How can we make it clear that slowing the spread of the virus not only impacts our own health and safety, but also helps high-risk groups who are less able to protect themselves due to their life circumstances? What type of message would best achieve this goal?
In a new study published in Social sciences and medicineAndrews and his co-authors find that the use of personal stories, as opposed to strictly fact-based messages, increased people’s beliefs about protecting vulnerable groups, as well as their intentions to engage in action. useful for the benefit of others.
The study focused on two groups: healthcare workers and incarcerated people. The researchers deliberately chose groups that experienced severe health inequalities during the pandemic, but were on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of perceived social status.
Although neither group received the help they needed during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, healthcare workers were portrayed as heroes on the frontlines of the pandemic, sacrificing their safety amid PPE shortages and other challenges. Those incarcerated also faced circumstances beyond their control, with the virus spreading rapidly in prisons and other facilities where physical distancing was difficult or impossible, and where basic hygiene provisions were often unavailable. But, as Andrews points out, the general public often overlooks incarcerated people or, worse, thinks they don’t deserve help.
“Much of the research has focused on people at higher bio-risk, such as those who are older or have underlying conditions – and helping to protect these groups is really important” , says Andrews. “But I also wanted to point out that some groups are more at risk because of where they live or work, or other conditions that have nothing to do with biology, and still experience disparities in matters of health.”
If an intervention increased support for these groups, Andrews says, they could also work for many others.
Learn more at Annenberg School for Communication.